So many thoughts concerning the above title, where to begin? A quote by our highly esteemed President Abraham Lincoln who fought against slavery in his own capacity might be a good start. It may help because the rest of this blog will be a diatribe about all that is evil in our center of higher education. “Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.”
I want to succeed as a teacher, a student-centered teacher, but the forces of the environment in Almaty, Kazakhstan which surrounds me in a strongly teacher-centered methodology continue to yank me down. Our university motto reads in large letters on the side of one of the buildings on campus “Education to change society.” However, I think the reverse is true since that huge banner was put up in 2005, it should now read “Kazakh society changing western education.” Before I raise the hackles of anyone who is Kazakh who I have probably offended already by things I’ve written in this blog, let me explain why I turned this phrase around. If you read to the “better end,” you might see my point.
Teaching two listening courses on MWF, one begins at 11:00 a.m. (or rather it is supposed to be at 11:00*) and the other at 4:00 p.m. If you are part of the elite nomenclature, then you would have your classes scheduled back to back. For instance, teaching at 11:00 and then 12:00 OR 3:00 and then finishing the second class starting at 4:00. But since I am only a volunteer (and not a slave bound to my desk doing the mandatory office hours between 12:00 and 4:00), I don’t have that privilege of back to back.
*Why do I have my 11:00 a.m. class of 20 students meet at 10:55 and end at 11:45? Glad you asked. Because the scheduling is such where the pre-academic course “Instructor” must occupy the same room I’m in precisely at 11:50 which according to the registrar’s schedule is when I was to end my class. Early in the semester I had this one particular Kazakh teacher loudly declare (totally out of character for a Kazakh) that I was in her classroom and to get out. What a scene she made in front of my 20 students but it was only because she is not confident with setting up the computer. I couldn’t figure out why MY academic listening class had to start 5 minutes earlier for her. Wasn’t it easier to ask her Foundations students to arrive five minutes later? However, she had another class right behind hers that also didn’t allow for changing of the guard. Supposedly, by this ninth week in the semester have all adjusted to this little scheduling snafu.
My second listening class at 4:00 p.m. also had a most inglorious beginning in August. That seems so very long ago now as I write this end of October. (We had our first freeze the night before) This listening class was stuck away in the older building and by necessity, the windows had to be open because it was so hot last weeks of August. That also allowed all the traffic noise to not only drift in but obliterate any kind of listening needed to successfully have real learning happen. Eventually we got a room change to the New Building but not without some persistence.
Okay, back to how Kazakh society is changing our western education. Since this is predominantly an oral culture, I believe the Central Asian students are fairly adept at listening. Or so I thought until yesterday when I asked for their rough drafts for their final papers. Keep in mind that the students according to the course curriculum are required in the past to take TWO listening classes and only ONE writing class. Right there is a big switcheroo of the Kazakh culture adapting western education to fit their own preference. If I told my American colleagues that American students should only be required to take ONE prerequisite writing class and TWO listening courses, my teaching friends would laugh me off the campus. Writing is very, very important to move ahead in a western environment. And you had better cite your sources correctly from where you got your ideas, quotes and paraphrasing. It had better be in your own words too! (There, I didn’t have to use the “P” word, did I?)
So what assignments did I get from my listening students yesterday after talking about this paper for the first 8 weeks of the semester? What did they read of each others rough drafts when I had them peer review? A lot of BLAH, BLAH facts!!! I’m feeling rather defeated, discouraged and NOT successful as a teacher. Okay, so these “pretend” students knew they had to hand something in to me yesterday, or else. To satisfy the deadline, they slapped together stuff they pulled off the Internet and maybe haphazardly cited something from somewhere. Perhaps they even got their Reference Page authors alphabetized correctly in APA format, but will it be interesting for me to read? NO!
I’ve glanced through some papers that look so opaque with facts and no analysis, no follow through with the thesis statement. Obviously these students did not bother to read the articles and sort it out in their mind even though they were given the choice of topic. They were supposed to be passionate about their topic enough to be curious to WANT to read, research, investigate and dig into the sources.
Oh, and that’s another thing. From the very beginning I told these dear students the hot button topics to stay away from when choosing their own topic to write about. They range from A to G for me: abortion, capital punishment, death penalty, GMO and gun control. What did one student hand in yesterday? A paper on the death penalty!!! I can’t figure it out, either there is a lot of “Lights on but nobody home” going on with my 20 students in each class who all seemed to show up for every class OR they can get away with turning in these kind of blah, blah papers with their other Soviet styled, teacher-centered teachers? Either way, as a western-trained, student-centered teacher I don’t like the answer to this either/or question.
I don’t know, I’m flummoxed by all of this. Will I be a slave to getting them to write properly even though this is a listening course? Or will I be a volunteer and just use up a lot of my valuable time and a LOT of red ink in the process to correct these blah, blah papers? How student-centered do I want to be in this strong Kazakh environment that does NOT promote writing? I want these students to have good ppt presentations so I can feel reasonably confident when I ask my foreign friends to be guests to listen to the students 7 minute talks, that it will not be a waste of their time. From the start I asked my students to find good content in the peer-reviewed articles. Perhaps they think they can pretend to slip this over on the teacher. They probably think, “She is so overworked with her 100 students, she won’t notice, right?”
Abraham Lincoln suffered many more defeats than victories, so he knew of what he spoke. His quotes will long be remembered. Even though I am experiencing character assassination which is driven by my Kazakh colleagues and administrators who misunderstand me and do not support my efforts to teach in my preferred style, I will continue to persist.
As I told my office mate one day, “The truth WILL prevail, it will just take a little longer in Kazakhstan.” You can quote me on that!!!